In 2013 everyone was talking about this amazing thing called "content". Content marketing is the cool new kid on the block. You’re mildly irritated, secretly envious and curious to emulate his success. Customer publishing and brand marketing is being badged "content" as rapidly as a high-achieving Scout. Now it’s time to move your curiosity about content to a plan of action.
Content is really the world’s oldest form of communication: telling stories – the campfire replaced by a plethora of digital, broadcast and print channels. Brands are now, if unwittingly, publishers; to create stories that engage, they need to strengthen their editorial brain and understand the motivations of a reader – or hire an agency that can.
As customers’ expectations of how they interact with brands become more sophisticated, the purpose of content evolves from functional transactions with "customers" to nuanced interactions with an "audience". The publishing industry can teach brands much about building an engaged and loyal community of interest, with its hard-wired ability to create "hooks" and stories, using people and passion to narrate complex propositions. The intersection of "story" (brand comms) and "content" (publishing) is where content marketing becomes contagious.
Some new brands in the digital space are getting it right, perhaps because they don’t have the legacy of relationships with "old" media. Men’s fashion retailer Mr Porter has created an online Journal, with lifestyle pieces by fashion writers, in its ecommerce site. Conversely, it has extended to a print edition and curates regular articles for GQ.
Some big brands fail to refresh. Coca-Cola’s 2020 Content Plan, described as "the most ambitious rethink of Coca-Cola’s web properties", will use digital technology and social media for "dynamic storytelling". A soda stream of hot air describes "data as the new soil" spread across a "big fat fertile space" by "data whisperers". Anyone for monkey tennis?
They fail to address why people would want to engage and share. To share, I need to care. To care I need to see how your product helps me improve my lot. Content stories can convert the curious to enthusiasts. The start of the marathon from ambivalence to ambassador is to convince your reader to share your passion and world view.
Creating content that does more, as opposed to more content, is your goal. To futureproof your brand’s content marketing, consider the nuances of commissioning, technology, activation and measurement.
Commission wisely. Create multi-use pieces that can feed multiple owned channels and campaigns. Create a content "hymn sheet" with a purposeful agenda from which all your producers can sing. Co-commission print and digital brand stories, adapted to each channel, to build a consistent tone of voice and simplify content production and costs.
Mobile is now the default. Your digital channels need to perform on multiple devices in different contexts. Consider projects from a "mobile-first" perspective: determine whether websites need to be responsive (the same content resized for different devices), or adaptive (specific sites or apps for different devices).
Use analytics to assess your "core" platform and context to prioritise production resources and target marketing. Cab-booking app Hailo is a mobile-first design for users on the move. Technology and brands need to play nicely together; automation is not the enemy of engagement. Create meaningful reasons to engage at different stages of the customer journey.
"To create stories that engage, brands need to strengthen their editorial brand and understand the motivations of a reader – or hire an agency that can"
However lovely you believe your content to be, it won’t achieve its full potential without being read. Invest fair efforts, and fair budgets, in finding an audience. Platforms for paid content like Outbrain – which places your story seamlessly into news sites – may not be new models, but they are allowing smaller producers access to big media’s audiences.
Content marketing needs to prove its effectiveness. Multichannel attribution can help determine how it contributes to sales. Don’t drown in data. Establish what metrics contribute to your primary goal (such as which web-traffic sources generate most sales), then focus your efforts to support this. Use divergence monitoring – switches in expected behaviour – to model and amplify successful anomalies.
To mature your content marketing from new kid to responsible (yet sophisticated) adult, make whatever you produce and share count. Brand stories aren’t a quick way to win sales, but the start of a journey to get your future customer to pay attention, join your audience and start to care.
The Co-operative Food: multichannel content with a down-to-earth flavour
It’s a rare retailer that doesn’t have an online store, but logistically The Co-op had difficulties. With its "local" status under threat from the major grocers it needed to develop content that would truly do more for its brand.
River was asked to create an accessible, stand-out, multichannel magazine to embody The Co-operative Food’s values while inspiring customers to create and enjoy great meals from their weekly shop. We needed to establish a point of difference for The Co-operative Food. Research showed that recipes and ideas in existing titles were often too difficult and off-putting for many customers. Food centres on convenience and location, so we needed to ensure there was a down-to-earth flavour to content, with readily available ingredients in recipes.
Taking it multichannel
Content from the print and digital magazine is repurposed across The Co-operative Food’s website, email campaigns and social media. The content fuels an omnichannel approach to brand communications. Video is used to show how easy the recipes are to cook.
70,000 digital magazine downloads per issue
No. 3 in iTunes "food and drink" chart
39% of customers pick up in store
"The magazine is a great embodiment of our brand and was an immediate commercial and business success. Working closely with the River team we have built a truly creative partnership."
Amanda Collins, senior marketing manager, The Co-operative Food